Whether arriving for a day trip or an extended stay at its only hotel, time spent on the French island of Cavallo promises privacy, coastal adventures and a sublime Mediterranean setting.
French nightclub owner and jetsetter Jean Castel fell in love with the Lavezzi Archipelago, a group of 23 granite islands located between Corsica and Sardinia, and bought it in 1966. In exchange for the right to build on Cavallo; the largest of the islands, he gave the others to the Corsican commune Bonifacio. Castel transformed the private isle into a party for his elite friends, and the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Catherine Deneuve, and Princess Caroline of Monaco drank champagne while dancing in the spotless white sand.
The party ended in 1978 when the exiled Italian prince Victor-Emmanuel of Savoy allegedly shot a teenage boy. But after encounters in the 1990s with the Italian mob and Corsican nationals, Cavallo resurfaced once again as a private luxury destination where celebrities like Beyonce, Bono, and Bill Gates escaped for seclusion and serenity.
Cavallo is the only inhabited island in the Lavezzi archipelago. A 15-minute ferry ride from the Piantarella Nautic (a schedule that includes six ferries a day during high season) allows you to reach this remote oasis. Once you arrive at its only dock, exploring the island takes less than a day. It’s about a 20-minute walk from one end to the other, and from the highest point, 33 meters above sea level, you can see all of its 120 acres of beach and maquis. This type of nature, common to the Mediterranean, consists of aromatic herbs like rosemary and thyme, plants bursting with color like lavender and immortelle, and thick shrubbery painted all shades of green. It blankets the whole island, lining roads only for bikes, golf carts, or the occasional scooter, as no automobiles are permitted here.
Besides the vegetation, Cavallo’s jewels are its beaches, where parasols are forbidden, the sand is spotless, and the turquoise water is alive with the glittering sun and schools of starfish and sea bream.
Once you’ve absorbed enough flora and fauna, the restaurants offer a taste of Cavallo’s proximity to Italy, and the only hotel provides coastal adventures to connect you deeply with the serene surroundings. Be sure to visit between May and September, for this summer getaway empties when the surrounding waters become a bit more treacherous, with 50 people maximum inhabiting the island at any given time during the off-season.
While it’d be easy to lose track of time for days on this sliver of private French paradise, here’s how to spend 24 hours on Cavallo.
Things to do
If you’re visiting Cavallo for the day, you can devote the better part of your time to exploring the white sand beaches that feature the perfect backdrop for an afternoon sunbath.
After descending the ferry, it’s an eight-minute walk to the closest beach, Plage de Palma. Google Maps provides easy walking directions to arrive, though don’t be stopped by the narrow dirt path marked privée. An easy climb over a smooth, rounded rock brings you to this crescent moon-shaped inlet that you may share with just a few other sunbathers, consuming the view of the pristine water and a few villas hidden in the maquis. This beach is ideal for laying out a towel, soaking in vitamin D, and listening to the gentle waves lapping against the shore.
Continue three minutes north to revel in the view at Plage de Zeri. While this stretch of sand has less beach space, it’s great for people-watching and sailboat-spotting. The natural horseshoe shape provides shelter from the surrounding surf, so it’s an easy spot for day-trippers with a boat to anchor.
Plage Grecu is stop-in-your-tracks stunning. It’s divided by rocks that jut out of the sand, so it can feel the most secluded if you’re lucky enough to find an empty section (you usually can). Keep a lookout for the eyes of Saint Lucia, shells that, according to superstition, allow your riches to return twice when given away in pairs. As you swim in the clear water, you’ll notice schools of fish fearlessly nudging at your ankles.
If you’re lucky enough to stay overnight, either in the hotel or a villa, the concierge at Hôtel des Pêcheurs can organize coastal activities. Opt for tennis at Cavallo’s secluded court or a boat rental to observe the coastline. With or without a skipper, but definitely with snorkel gear discover the Lavezzi Archipelago. Allow the sun to warm your skin, the wind to wash your face with salty air, and watch the uninhabited islands pass you by.
Cavallo is a dream for those with a scuba diving license. All it takes for a scuba dive is an email to Marco (firstname.lastname@example.org), who will tell you to meet him at his Zodiac boat in the afternoon, as long as the weather holds. The archipelago offers dives for all levels: an advanced trip into the open ocean, moderate explorations around wrecks and in caves, or a more meditative option at 15 meters where you can enjoy the safari of jellyfish, groupers, and, if you’re lucky, octopus.
Where to Stay
What started as the island’s lobster shack has grown into the gorgeous, five-star Hôtel & Spa des Pêcheurs (Ile de Cavallo, 20169 Bonifacio), owned and run by Italians. Upon arrival, you’ll connect with a warm feeling of nostalgia, as the hotel’s bar and restaurant are situated just at the water’s edge and provide the sensation that you’ve stepped onto the bow of an antique ship. All the different room categories come with a balcony with a view of the sea. The property is a labyrinth of relaxing places, including Cavallo’s only stretch of sand with beach beds, the outdoor or indoor pool spaces, and the spa. In partnership with the cosmetic brand Miamo, the spa’s menu offers various massages, facials, and body treatments.
Are you traveling with a group of people or desiring even more privacy? It’s possible to rent one of the island’s exclusive villas. These private homes are luxurious but not ostentatious. Blending in with nature, they are often constructed around sizable, natural rocks and usually boast direct access to the sea. For availability, contact Barnes Cavallo at the port or browse the website: www.cavalloisland.com.
Bonifacio is just a 15-minute taxi ride from the ferry if you’re interested in a day trip. This medieval Corsican village offers a variety of hotel options, including Hôtel U Capu Bianco (Lieu dit Ricetti Domaine de Pozzoniello), a luxury property outside the city center with two private beaches, multiple restaurants, and spacious rooms overlooking the Mediterranean. If you prefer to be in proximity to the cobblestoned streets of Bonifacio, Hôtel Genovese (1 Pl. de l’Europe) provides breathtaking views of the city and port and a spa with a sauna and an indoor pool.
Where to Eat
If you’ve taken the ferry to explore for the day, the absolute must-try restaurant is Restaurant la Ferme (Ile de Cavallo 20169 Bonifacio). While it’s just a 12-minute walk from the port, the establishment can pick you up by golf cart. The view from the island’s highest point is spectacular: the maquis, turquoise sea, and Sardinia in the distance. Greek chef Fotis Alevizakis has curated an exceptional menu. Once you’ve settled into your seat and perhaps seen a fellow diner arriving by helicopter a hundred meters away, a waiter carries over the fresh catches of the day for you to choose from. The vegetables taste like they were picked minutes before, and traditional dishes such as mérou blanc or Greek salad come with a creative twist. A sommelier recommends the perfect accompaniment to your entrée and plat.
Restaurant des Pêcheurs (Ile de Cavallo 20169 Bonifacio), the main restaurant of Hôtel des Pêcheurs, is open for lunch and dinner and offers a delicious à la carte menu of seafood, mainland meats, and pasta. While there aren’t vegetarian options listed, the versatile chef can concoct a meatless meal that will be beyond satisfying, even extending the playful game of inviting you to guess which ingredients he’s incorporated into the dish. A long list of mostly Italian wines will make it hard to resist ordering a bottle, and you can’t leave without trying the cheesecake al Pastis con crumble di agrumi. This delectable dessert brings the flavors of licorice and citrus to cheesecake.
The hotel’s other restaurant is the Antica Pesa Mare(Ile de Cavallo 20169 Bonifacio). Despite the Club Cavallo sandwich being 40 euros, the vibe is chill, and the restaurant is located right on the beach. Whether your day calls for one of the many salads or a hamburger option, you can enjoy lunch at a terrace table or keep it even more casual by eating on your sun bed. Try at least one Italian Sgroppino––a concoction of lemon ice cream with soda––between cocktails.
You can’t trust a destination, especially one this close to Italy, if there isn’t a way to get a pizza. Luckily, La Bistro Cavallo (Ile de Cavallo 20169 Bonifacio) has a whole menu of them. This eatery is where you can hang out for a low-key lunch, dinner, or apéro. Watch the yachts, sailboats, and zodiacs bob in the port, and wave hello to the Restaurant La Ferme waiter eating next to you or Marco the scuba pro sipping an aperitif while fun Italian music plays. Your Hôtel des Pêcheurs bed or ferry ride is just a two-minute walk away.